Vancouver Sun: New institute promotes sustainable mining in developing countries

Jan 30, 2014

SFUThe following article was published in the Vancouver Sun on January 30, 2014.

Joint Venture between UBC, SFU, and École Polytechnique de Montréal wins $25 million in federal funding.

By Derrick Penner, Vancouver Sun

Academics in a new $25-million resource-sector research institute can see how training artisanal miners in Ecuador to use more sustainable practices can lead to better government policies and a more prosperous mining sector.

A pilot project to train small-scale miners in better techniques is one of the initial efforts of the just-launched Canadian International Institute for Resource Extraction and Development, but it is already gaining traction, and in a nutshell sums up what the institute’s job will be.

“Trying to formalize artisanal mining hasn’t worked well,” said Bern Klein, acting executive director of the institute. “You just give someone a piece of paper to do what they’ve always done. But education is transformational.”

Klein said the pilot project capitalizes on research done in the mining school at the University of B.C., which is one of three academic partners in the institute along with Simon Fraser University and Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal.

The institute’s mission, Klein added, is to help national, regional and local governments to leverage mining and resource extraction into long-term, sustainable livelihoods.

In Ecuador, Klein said, the pilot project gets at that mission by teaching miners to use technology that avoids the dangerous use of substances such as mercury and cyanide, substituting healthier and environmentally cleaner methods.

“It helps them be more efficient in the way they operate and that will reflect in policies at the national level in how these countries best manage artisanal mining,” Klein added.

The federal government’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development initiated the institute in 2012, calling for proposals to run the centre that would help developing countries create the legal and regulatory frameworks they need to capitalize on their own resource development.

UBC, SFU and Ecole Polytechnique put in the winning proposal and, in November 2012, were awarded $25 million to begin work on the institute, which is headquartered at UBC.

The academic partners formally launched the centre Wednesday in downtown Vancouver, in conjunction with the Association of Mineral Exploration B.C.’s Mineral Exploration Roundup 2014 conference.

“The resource sector is a necessity,” said John Hepburn, UBC ’s vice-president of research. “So, unless you’re willing to give up your toys like (the iPhone), we do need the ores and minerals that we extract and that are in demand for all of our products.”

Hepburn called the institute the collective effort of the three universities to “start an open, transparent and honest dialogue about a sector that covers the globe.”

He said the concept of sustainable resource use permeates all aspects of mining education at UBC’s Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering and UBC has a strong track record of working with aboriginal communities and governments, which is expected to be an important aspect of the Extractive Industries and Development Institute.

Beyond mining, Hepburn said, UBC’s interests include using its expertise in law, international relations and environmental protection to help governments and indigenous communities in developing countries.

All three universities have specific initiatives that they are bringing to the institute.

At SFU, university president Andrew Petter said the Beedie School of Business has had considerable success with its responsible minerals sector initiative, which involves staging dialogue events around resource development.

Petter added that the Beedie school plans to extend its dialogues with the hope of working with other governments to “develop policies that measurably reduce poverty.”

Ecole Polytechnique, among its international efforts over the last 40 years, helped create a school of mining in the African nation of Mauritania, which is one reason its academics were interested in the proposal, according to CEO Christophe Guy.

“UBC and SFU were not our only choice (for a proposal),” Guy said, “but our initial contact made it clear it was good chemistry and (the other universities) would complement well our expertise.”

Vancouver is very much the world’s centre for mining exploration, with more than 900 companies headquartered in the city, which makes it a natural home for such an institute.

However, it is not starting up without its share of controversy related to Canada’s sometimes controversial reputation in the mining industry in places such as Honduras and Colombia.

Jennifer Moore, Latin America program director for Mining Watch Canada, said she is skeptical that the institute will have much independence given its source of funding from DFAIT.

The concern, she added, is that it will be more about creating conditions that are supportive of Canadian foreign investment abroad than of international development.

Moore said that previously Honduras, which she characterized as the most violent country in Latin America following a military coup in 2009, used Canadian financial support to rewrite mining laws passed in 2013 that didn’t adequately consult communities and aggravated conflicts in its mining regions.

“I would rather see those (DFAIT) resources used to institute new legislation in Canada that would hold Canadian companies to account (for their actions abroad),” Moore said.

Klein countered Mining Watch’s concerns by pointing to the long history that the institutions involved have with sustainable development and social responsibility.

“You can’t question the goals and values of the people involved,” Klein said.

To date, Klein said, the institute has conducted initial outreach work for programs in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, where he sees potential for co-operation between countries.

And the institute has had a specific request from Tanzania for guidance in developing that country’s oil and gas industry.

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